In rural Wisconsin, minorities are underrepresented in policing. It’s part of a bigger issue.

Published: Jul. 23, 2020 at 9:35 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - When asked about his expectations for policing in his community, Chris Norfleet becomes passionate.

“You are a civil servant,” The president of Wausau-based advocacy organization People for the Power of Love explained. “And that means you have the obligation to serve. Not just some community, but all community.”

Recently, newly-elected Wausau mayor Katie Rosenberg proposed a policing task force directed at examining the department’s policies affecting systemic racism, recruitment, and other issues. As one of the more diverse populations in a largely-white region, Wausau’s racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting spark of national conversations about race has been fairly prominent, highlighted when its Black Lives Matter march last month became the largest political protest in the city’s recent history.

Rural Wisconsin is mostly white—but certainly not exclusively so. Ranging from 80% non-Hispanic white in Wausau to almost 95% or more in smaller cities like Marshfield or Merrill, the agencies that police them, unsurprisingly, reflect that. Historically an industry dominated by white males, women remain underrepresented in law enforcement—and minorities even more so in rural Wisconsin.

Population demographics, however, aren’t necessarily the best descriptor of the people with whom law enforcement have the most criminal-based interactions. Based on arrest data published regularly to the WPD website, Black individuals account for an outsized percentage of arrests in a city where they are barely more than 1% of the population. In January, 18.5% of WPD’s more than 200 arrests were Black individuals; in May, it was a little more than 11%. White individuals, on the other hand, regularly represented an equal or smaller percentage of arrests than the city’s roughly-80% white population.

Throughout northcentral Wisconsin, minorities—especially Blacks—don’t often see themselves represented in the police officers for their community. Across the area, large departments generally reported less than 5% of their sworn force as being Asian, Black, or another ethnicity. That’s even though North Central Technical College, offering an associate’s degree in Criminal Justice and the police academy for the surrounding region, reported about a 16% minority representation in their criminal justice and academy students.

“As a woman, I spent fourteen years of my career in law enforcement before coming to NTC,” Sara Gossfeld-Benzing, NTC’s Dean of Public Safety. “We need more women. Our academies average about one or two women in the academy a semester.”

Wausau’s sworn police force is already significantly more diverse in regards to minorities than other large law enforcement agencies across rural Wisconsin, something that WPD’s leaders say has been part of their hiring priorities for years. The 77-member department includes ten women (13%) and eight (10%) minority officers, several of whom serve as lieutenants and detectives. The larger Marathon County Sheriff’s Office, with 91 sworn deputies, includes just five women and four non-white deputies. Farther north in Oneida County, where just 4% of the county’s population is non-white, the 37-deputy sheriff’s office has no minorities, but does include women.

“We hire based on character, not gender or ethnicity,” Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks noted in an email to 7 Investigates when providing diversity data for his department. In one way or another, it was the same description for recruitment priorities provided by most law enforcement leaders 7 Investigates contacted. (Merrill said they did not track ethnicity at their department at all.) Perspective at the WPD, however, diverged in some part from what others described in recruitment.

“It is important that we have a diverse police department,” Bliven stated.

In recruitment, the WPD has long emphasized integrity, honesty, and respect for others as key components they’re looking for. Character is paramount and what they prioritize in every recruit, but a force that represents the diversity of background, ethnicity, and gender have also been an identifiable priority of the police department for years, Bliven says.

“Our community has made it very clear that we should have more African-American police officers, more Hispanic police officers, more Hmong officers,” he noted. But he believes it’s not something that’s necessarily measured by whether the department more closely matches the populations it serves, and it extends to not just gender and ethnicity but the education and socioeconomic backgrounds of his officers.

“It is important to me that we have people here that, when somebody from our community of a minority race calls and wants to talk to law enforcement, they can talk to somebody who looks like them,” he said. “We don’t want to hire 80 of the same officers from the exact same background…it is important that we have that diversity of thought and background; people that grew up in poverty, people that grew up middle class.”

Recruitment, however, is where departments say they struggle to attract a diverse body of applicants. At a recent hiring cycle in Stevens Point, interim-chief Tom Zenner said that out of 22 applicants, they had just 2 women and no minorities. That’s despite going outside the state into major metro areas to recruit, which both the WPD and SPPD say haven’t resulted in much success, thanks in part to a law enforcement recruiting environment that has seen declining applicants for at least a decade.

“There’s an expectation within our community to bring in the most qualified candidates,” Zenner said. “When you’re trying to get a diverse background on your force, that may tend to lead you to other qualifications within those highly-qualified candidates that we’re picking.”

It’s a concept that Chris Norfleet, President of the People for the Power of Love Wausau-based advocacy organization, pushes back on.

“Are you suggesting to me that we can’t find Black people who can perform these duties equitably?” he asked. Norfleet believes the issue goes beyond just representation; policy, too, has to play a major, active role.

“We’re talking about police, but it’s every institution,” he said. “If they don’t acknowledge the bad behavior and we just call it ‘Oh, we got to be diverse,' then they don’t get the weight of the injustice. "

That lines up with experts that say a diverse police force is only part of the answer when the discussion centers on racism, representation, and bias in communities. Police forces are often a reflection of the communities where they serve, UW-Madison Professor Emerita of Sociology Pamela Oliver noted in an email exchange with 7 Investigates. “It isn’t clear that changing the composition of the police force when the community hasn’t changed would make much of a difference.”

A 2003 study found that higher diversity in law enforcement did not necessarily mean a lower number of deaths caused by police, and Prof. Oliver said that the overall body of research “is mixed at best” in relation to the idea that diversity alone in law enforcement will result in less implicit bias.

“I think increasing the racial diversity of a police department only helps if getting more police of color is also tied to a change in the department’s organizational culture and mission,” Oliver said. “And, in my view, it would have to be tied to a commitment to un-do the patterns of segregation and discrimination in the larger society.”

For Bliven, the priority is, above all, personal.

“If you don’t have individuals that you’ve hired as a police department that are good people and are going to treat people the right way, then you’re going to struggle as a law enforcement agency.”

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